“Technicians at the (Hmeimim) airbase have begun preparing aircraft for long-range flights to airbases in the Russian Federation,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement after Putin announced that he has ordered the bulk of its forces back from Syria.
In a televised statement Putin said, “The task that was set before our defence ministry and armed forces has as a whole been completed and so I order the defence ministry to from tomorrow start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingents from the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Officials announced that Putin had called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s long-standing ally, to inform him of Moscow’s surprise move.
Putin also spoke to US President Barack Obama regarding the matter.
“They discussed President Putin’s announcement today of a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria and next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities,” the White House said in a statement.
“Continuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk undermining both the Cessation of Hostilities and the UN-led political process,” the White House cited Obama as saying. “The president also noted some progress on humanitarian assistance efforts in Syria but emphasized the need for regime forces to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance delivery to the agreed-upon locations, notably Daraya.”
The two leaders, however, also agreed that Moscow would maintain an airforce facility in Syria to help monitor the progress of a ceasefire in the war-torn country.
“The leaders noted that the actions of the Russian airforce allowed to radically change the situation in the fight against terrorism, to disorganise the fighters’ infrastructure and inflict significant damage on them,” Moscow said in a statement.
“Assad noted the professionalism, courage and heroism of the officers of the Russian armed forces that took part in the military operations and expressed deep appreciation to Russia,” the Russian statement added.
Russia began its bombing campaign in support of Assad’s forces in September, a move that helped shore up Assad’s crumbling forces and go on the offensive.
Putin’s announcement of troop withdrawal coincided with a fresh round of peace talks in Geneva that have so far been dominated by a disagreement over Assad’s fate.
Russia has remained steadfast in its public support of Assad, while opposition groups, the United States and key European countries have called on Assad to go as part of a negotiated transition.
Russia’s move was hailed not just by the US. United Nations Security Council welcomed Putin’s decision as a “positive step” for the fraught peace negotiations. However, Russia’s move is expected to put more pressure on Assad to negotiate during the Geneva talks.
A temporary ceasefire in the country introduced on February 27 has largely held, despite accusations of violations from both sides, allowing aid to reach some 150,000 people living under siege.
(With inputs from agencies)